By Pete Ruden
Replacing players is natural in college football, but it is never easy to do, especially when that player leads the country with 8 interceptions and 26 passes defended.
But that is exactly what Iowa has to do with Josh Jackson. Jackson’s departure to the NFL — where he will likely hear his name called in the first round on Thursday — leaves the Hawkeyes with a big void inh its secondary that had been filled by All-Americans Desmond King and Jackson in back-to-back seasons.
The depth is promising, though. With Manny Rugamba moving to the nickel and in the two-deep in the base defense, Michael Ojemudia and Matt Hankins are slated to start at cornerback.
Ojemudia racked up starts throughout last season, including an 8-tackle performance at Michigan State and 6-tackle showing against Illinois.
Hankins, on the other hand, was one of 10 true freshmen to see action. He impressed the coaching staff enough to start his first game in the regular-season finale against Nebraska, where he broke up a pass, as the defense allowed just 267 total yards.
He earned the starting nod in the Pinstripe Bowl against Boston College as well, racking up a career-high 7 tackles in his chance.
After coming on strong in an upset win over Michigan in 2016, Rugamba cooled off in 2017, losing a starting spot that Ojemudia and Hankins took advantage of.
“I think it’s a challenge as a true freshman to come in and play against Michigan and having a great year, and a lot of people patting you on the back, and I think maybe he might have lost his focus a little bit, not as detailed, maybe not as much of a time commitment,” defensive coordinator Phil Parker said.
Still, the cornerbacks are more plentiful than they were at this point last season following the departures of King and Greg Mabin.
While they have been inconsistent at times, the spring season gave the Hawkeyes a chance to improve on the weaker parts of their games, and the secondary impressed observers in the team’s open practice on April 20, forcing 3 early turnovers against the starting offense.
“I think we’re coming along pretty good,” Ojemudia said. “We’re a little bit younger in terms of field experience, but I think we’ve gotten a lot better because we’ve gotten a lot better during the spring.”
Behind the cornerbacks, the safeties also have a three- to four-man rotation that boosts the depth. Amani Hooker, Jake Gervase, Geno Stone, and Brandon Snyder have all impressed people at different times throughout their tenures.
Hooker set himself up for success last season, earning a starting spot. He carried his momentum into the spring, where he had a phenomenal open practice. The Minneapolis native started the night off with a pick before forcing a fumble and tipping a Nate Stanley pass into the arms of Gervase.
Gervase started last season as a reserve behind Miles Taylor, then overtook the senior as the season progressed. Hooker then earned his place over Gervase, but Snyder’s torn ACL put him back in the starting lineup. Gervase took advantage, picking off 3 passes, and he had at least 6 tackles in seven games.
Stone was one of 10 true freshmen to see action and made the most of his time, intercepting a pass and earning the Next Man In Award on special teams.
Snyder has battled injuries recently, tearing the same ACL twice in a year’s span. When healthy, he can be a force, evidenced by his Pick-6 against Illinois in his only game of 2017.
Snyder’s absence has opened the door for others, and when he comes back, it will be an even deeper group.
“We’ve got some good depth,” Gervase said. “If there’s a rotation, if there’s not, whoever’s in there is going to do his job. As long as we’re on the same page and executing our game plan, we’re just going to try to win ballgames.”